WTO members agreed this week to extend the transition period for least developed countries (LDCs) to implement the organisation’s rules on intellectual property rights until July 2021. The current extension period was due to end next month.

When the WTO was established in 1995, the organisation’s poorest members were initially given until 1 January 2006 to implement the obligations contained in the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Agreement. In 2002 the transition period was extended until July 2013. Haiti submitted a request last November on behalf of the LDC Group to extend the transition period further – specifically, until a given member graduates from being a least developed country arguing that “The situation of LDCs has not changed significantly since the last extension decision in 2005… [and they] have not been able to develop their productive capacities and have not beneficially integrated with the world economy.”

Some have warned that giving LDCs less than a decade of additional time will limit their opportunities to test out which domestic intellectual property laws might be in their best interests. LDCs will, however, be able to seek further extensions after the 2021 deadline.

The decision comes as WTO members continue to work towards agreeing a set of deliverables in time for the ministerial conference in Bali in December. While some  have welcomed this agreement as a sign that members can still negotiate constructively, others continue to warn that preparations for Bali are not moving fast enough.

The failure to pass yet another WTO milestone has only added to this sense of sluggishness – despite agreeing to eliminate farm export subsidies by 2013 at the Hong Kong Summit nearly 8 years ago, developed countries show little sign of phasing these harmful payments out. Slow progress on the rest of the Doha Round has continually been used as an unconvincing excuse for the lack of movement on this issue.

The G-20 group of developing countries has called for developed countries to halve ceilings for budgetary spending on farm export subsidies as a token step towards ending the controversial payments – widely seen as the most trade-distorting type of support to producers.

Agriculture remains one of the key sticking points on the Doha agenda, with many trade officials concerned that the chances of finding a consensus are rapidly diminishing. Last week, trade ministers meeting in Paris said that ‘real’ progress must be made in the next month if there is to be any hope of reaching an agreement in December.

A failure to reach an agreement of some kind in Bali would not only sound the death knell for the Doha Round, but would have damaging repercussions for the WTO as a whole. It is possible that the G8 talks next week will provide a much needed boost to proceedings as trade discussions take a central role at Lough Erne. However, it will be vital for Cameron to keep the trading needs of the world’s poorest centre stage, and not let them become overshadowed by the headline EU/US free trade agreement.

The UK has proposed supporting African countries to reduce border crossing time and to increase intra-African trade as part of the G8 agenda. If this is agreed, it will greatly improve prospects of achieving the trade facilitation package that many hope to see ratified in Bali – the G8 must remember that it has the power to make statements of intent that the WTO would find very difficult to ignore.

Summary

WTO members agreed this week to extend the transition period for least developed countries (LDCs) to implement the organisation’s rules on intellectual property rights until July 2021. But the failure to achieve the WTO milestone of eliminating farm export subsidies by 2013, which was originally agreed at the Hong Kong Summit nearly 8 years ago, questions developed countries’ resolve to rebalance the international trading landscape. Will the G8 provide the boost needed to reinvigorate political will to provide for the trading needs of the world’s poorest?

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